Good work: what do the self-employed really think?


It is rare a day goes by without a commentator opining about the nature of self-employment in the UK. But too often this is based on anecdote rather than fact, and things can get bogged down in overly simplistic good/bad narratives.

That is why IPSE decided to work with the IPA (the Involvement and Participation Association) to get to grips with what the self-employed really think. What do they like and how satisfied are they with different aspects of their work? What are their biggest challenges? How do they achieve a sense of purpose in their work?

The Taylor Review kick-started this focus on good work. We have record low unemployment in the UK, but to what extent is this good quality work and what can be done to make work more fulfilling for all?

This is a very healthy discussion for us to be having as a nation. And at IPSE we are keen for the self-employed not to be left out of it and simply lumped together with employees. We want to ensure that policymakers both recognise and respect the distinctive nature of self-employment, paving the way for policies that support rather than frustrate the self-employed.

Working Well for Yourself will prove incredibly useful for this. For the report, we heard directly from the self-employed – both through a survey of 800 people and through focus groups up and down the country. The big picture was that the self-employed are generally very happy. This confirms what the CIPD found in 2015, with job satisfaction among the self-employed at 81 per cent, compared to 61 per cent among full time employees.

But there is plenty of other fascinating detail in this report, which is well worth reflecting on if we want to better understand the self-employed. Of course the UK’s 4.8 million self-employed are a diverse bunch, but this unique research drew out five points that should be instructive for anyone with an interest in all parts of this varied sector.

  1.     It’s not all about money
    This needs to be repeated until blue in the face. The self-employed are not primarily motivated by making lots of money or becoming the next Richard Branson.

    Rather, they’re good at what they do and they enjoy doing it. The vast majority do not want the hassle of employing people: they simply want to become experts in their field and enjoy the autonomy of being their own boss.

    We asked the self-employed how, without the clear career path enjoyed by many employees, they measure their progression. The most common answer (64%) was ‘increasing my skills and knowledge’ – well above increasing turnover. Employing others was relatively unimportant, with just one in seven using this as a measure for career progression.

    Government policy needs to recognise this reality. There needs to be just as much focus on upskilling as on business growth. Treasury proposals to change the tax treatment of training will certainly help with this, but Government should also consider collating reputable training schemes in a central database to make it easier for the self-employed to find the right support.

  2.     Work/life balance is a double-edged sword
    Another key finding in the report was that the self-employed see having the ability to fit their work around other commitments as one of the biggest advantages of self-employment. As one focus group participant said, ‘the good thing is being able to work when you want… I can get up late in the day and do nothing and then if I need to work at three in the morning because I feel the need to, then I can’.

    The flipside is that the self-employed often feel unable to turn down work and end up working longer than employees and taking fewer holidays. This is clearly something that self-employed people need to manage – ensuring they set aside enough time away from work and for holidays.

    We should not, however, assume that those working long hours would be happier in regular employment. In many cases, longer working hours may simply reflect people willingly sacrificing more of their leisure time – or having a number of clients at any given time – in exchange for a higher income.

  3.     Payment culture remains a serious problem
    This will sadly come as no surprise to many. 63 per cent of the self-employed have suffered late payment, while 43 per cent have in some instances not been paid at all for their work. On top of this, it was even relatively common to be asked to work for free.

    This is extraordinary and unacceptable. There are clearly deep-rooted problems in the current payment culture, where many clients feel able to hold out paying freelancers for as long as possible, doing financial damage to them in order to boost their own cashflow. Policymakers must put more energy into solving this problem, and giving the Small Business Commissioner the power to fine the worst offenders would be a good start.

  4.     Autonomy is a key benefit for the self-employed
    More positively, the self-employed generally have a high level of autonomy in terms of how they work – particularly in the day-to-day aspects of their work such as the tasks they undertake and how they complete them. 91 per cent said they have ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of control over setting their daily tasks, and 95 per cent had similar control over how they performed them.

    Having a large degree of control over one’s working life is one of the key dividing lines between employment and self-employment, and was something our focus group participants emphasised. It is therefore reassuring that the vast majority showed high levels of autonomy in their work: this remains one of the cornerstones and key attractions of self-employment.

  5.     Clients need to better understand the self-employed
    One interesting theme that emerged from this study was the need for clients to better understand how the self-employed work. This is not to say that the self-employed do not get on with their clients – in fact quite the opposite: good relationships with clients was one of the most positive aspects of their work.

    There was often a nagging feeling, however, that clients didn’t fully understand their way of working, which could create unnecessary problems. For example, unclear contracts could be drafted that created confusion about responsibilities. For those working away from their clients’ sites, there could sometimes be a feeling that they were assumed to be always ‘on’ and available to be contacted at all hours. There may be a need for guidance here to ensure clients respect the self-employed and are able to work productively with them.

    Working Well for Yourself will provide food for thought for policymakers and all those with a stake in the self-employed sector in the UK. To put it simply, self-employed work is undoubtedly ‘good’, but it could be better. The Government’s focus should be on properly addressing a pernicious payment culture, as well as better enabling the self-employed to upskill and achieve their career goals.

Meet the author

Jordan Marshall

Policy Development Manager